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Saban makes it clear nine games is best for SEC, but not everybody agrees

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Saban believes the 14-team SEC should add a game to the conference schedule. (AP)  
Saban believes the 14-team SEC should add a game to the conference schedule. (AP)  

Hoover, Ala. -- When Nick Saban talks, people listen. When the Alabama coach, who has won two of the last three national championships, stakes out a firm position on a controversial issue, then people really listen.

So it was significant as SEC Media Days came to a close on Friday that Saban said, in no uncertain terms, that it was time for the SEC to go to a nine-game conference schedule.

"To me it's pretty simple," said Saban. "When you increase the size of the conference by 15 percent [by adding Missouri and Texas A&M], you should increase the number of conference games you play."

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The SEC has been playing an eight-game league schedule since it expanded to 12 teams (by adding South Carolina and Arkansas) in 1992. From 1988 to 1991 the SEC played a seven-game conference schedule. Prior to that the league's teams played only six conference games each year.

So when the conference went to eight games two decades ago, the coaches damned near revolted. Alabama coach Gene Stallings told me that "the SEC will never win another national championship." Wrong. In the 20 years since the SEC expanded to eight conference games it has won 10 national championships, including the last six in a row.

The issue of going to nine conference games was thoroughly discussed when the coaches gathered at the SEC Spring meetings in Destin, Fla. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the coaches were against it.

"The reality is that some of us have to have as much scheduling flexibility as possible," one coach told me, asking that his name not be used. "We already play in the toughest conference in the world. Why would we make it more difficult on ourselves?"

But several developments appear to be pushing the SEC to a nine-game schedule soon rather than later:

  The Pac-12 and Big 12 already play nine games and the ACC will do so next season when both Syracuse and Pittsburgh join the league.

  The Big Ten and Pac-12 tried to work out a scheduling relationship but couldn't overcome the logistics. As a result, the Big Ten will probably take another look at a nine-game conference schedule.

 When the four-game playoff begins in 2014, the selection committee will look at a number of criteria, including strength of schedule. An undefeated Auburn got left out of the BCS championship game in 2004 and Commissioner Mike Slive vowed that would never happen again.

"We thoroughly vetted this idea of scheduling and we took a vote and chose to stay at eight games," said Slive. "But we are also mindful that moving forward our strength of schedule will be a factor. I can't tell you what we will decide. But I can tell you that this is something that we're going to watch."

The fans will like having one more conference game and one less cupcake on the schedule. Of course that will change the year their team has four conference games at home and five on the road. In a conference where every inequality -- both real and imagined -- is passionately debated, such an obvious advantage/disadvantage in scheduling like this going to provide tons of fodder for the talk shows.

Within the conference, the argument lines break down like this: The schools at the top of this conference that are competing for the national championship are willing to play nine conference games, a good intersectional game and two teams they can beat at home. But there are other teams in the league that need at least three guaranteed wins in non-conference games in order to have any shot at a bowl.

"Everybody has their own situation and they try to do what is best for their school. I get that," said Saban. "But at some point we have to think about what's best for the conference and, more importantly, what's best for the players on our team."

This argument, said Saban, is the one that should carry the day.

"I just think that every player who comes to one of our schools should play every team in the conference if he stays four years," said Saban. "Under the current system we have guys who will never play Georgia or Florida. That's not right. If we have to play nine conference games to get that fixed then that is what we need to do."

The SEC could have fixed Saban's issue in the spring by going to an eight-game format that would have teams playing six divisional opponents annually and then rotating two teams each year from the other division. But in order to do that, the historic cross-division rivalry games like Georgia-Auburn and Alabama-Tennessee would have gone way. That was not going to happen.

Georgia-Auburn is the longest continuous rivalry in the South, dating back to 1892.

"Keeping the Georgia-Auburn game was our top priority in the scheduling discussions," said Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity. "We understand that there needs to be some give and take, but our people do not want to give that game up."

But the world is changing quickly in college football, and the SEC has been ahead of the curve in most of the stops along the way. The only place where the SEC has hung back has been in scheduling. The SEC chose not to play nine conference game because in the short term it didn't need to play that card.

It looks like that is about to change.

The Tony Barnhart Show airs on Aug. 28 on the CBS Sports Network.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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